Hispanic group readies for next battle in war on bilingual education
Amendment 31 proposes English immersion and holding teachers responsible

On Nov. 5, Colorado voters will decide whether to end bilingual education in public schools with a state Constitutional amendment, and Los CompaF1eros, a local Hispanic advocacy group, is bracing for a fight. The group plans to organize against Amendment 31, which would essentially send non-native speakers into “sheltered English-immersion classes” for one year – and then place them in classes taught entirely in English.

Teachers would be able to grant waivers to students who wished to stay in bilingual education classes. However, they would be open to lawsuits – for up to 10 years – by parents who felt their children’s education was harmed by the waiver. Administrators could lose their licenses and/or not hold public office for up to five years.

“The punishments are just ridiculous for what they’re proposing,” said Ariel Bickel, coordinator of social and political policy change for Companeros. “I keep saying it would ‘eradicate’ (bilingual education) but what I mean is ‘criminalize.’”

Bickel said the “one-size-fits-all solution” Amendment 31 proposes is degrading, costly and overly punitive. Furthermore, she said that children would be traumatized when they fall behind in English-only classes because they can’t understand new concepts in science, for example.

“These are brilliant students – they’re not stupid – they just don’t speak English,” Bickel said.

Carol Harris, 9-R director of elementary student achievement, coordinates the English-learner program for K-12. The program used to be called ESL, or English as a Second Language, but was changed in the last few years to ELL, English Language Learners, since some students may speak more than two languages, she said.

According to Harris, 9-R has been averaging about 150 ELL students each year for the last six years. The program differs from traditional “bilingual education” because students meet in small groups for extra support in English – rather than in their native language as in bilingual education classes – for about 45 minutes to an hour after regular classes.

So Harris opposes Amendment 31 because those ELL classes would be eliminated.

“The children learn quite well that way, and that’s where I’m opposed to Amendment 31,” she said. “They really, really need that support.”

Harris pointed out that Spanish speakers are not the only group that would be affected by the amendment. She said that although they constitute the majority of ELL students in the district, the fastest growing ELL group here and in the Four Corners is American Indians, who often participate in ELL because their native tongue is Navajo or another tribal language.

Bringing California to Colorado

Amendment 31 was brought to Colorado by Californian Ron Unz, a conservative software entrepreneur who is chairman of English for the Children, a group he founded to eradicate bilingual education in America. Unz spearheaded his first initiative in California – Proposition 227 – which passed in 1998.

Unz led another successful campaign in Arizona in 2000; this year, he is funding efforts in Colorado and Massachusetts.

“Bilingual education has never worked anywhere in America in the last 30 years,” he said, adding that the concept “never made any sense” to him. And he thinks there are enough Americans who feel the same way.

“I think we have a very good chance of winning,” he said.

Unz’s partner in Colorado is Rita Montero, a former bilingual-education advocate in Denver. Montero became involved when her son Camilo – who spoke Spanish at home – was placed in bilingual classes, even though she felt he was proficient enough to be in English-only classes. As she struggled against bureaucracy to gain a waiver to permit him to leave the bilingual classes, she learned that some children were kept as long as 12 years in all-Spanish language instruction.

“All of our opponents today are the same opponents we had when we were trying to change this disastrous program,” said Montero, who fought the program particularly in the 90s.

To get her voice heard, Montero joined the Denver School Board and advocated for change. The result was the adoption of a program that called for native-language instruction for three years with an increase in English language instruction over the three years. But she felt that system failed, too. For example, she said often assessment of placement in the program was being made by secretaries, not educators, and she began organizing protests with other parents.

A year after she was approached by Unz to join his campaign she said to the other parents, “Let’s call Ron.”

“I know that holding a second language will open doors for you, but you need to speak English first,” Montero said.

Montero said the amendment needed stricter punishments for teachers and school administrators who grant waivers to stay in bilingual education in Colorado because teachers in California and Arizona were “lying” after initiatives passed by telling parents that the new program was bad, which triggered demands for waivers.

“They put them all back in bilingual education,” Montero said.

She said some teachers threatened parents with deportation if their children didn’t stay in bilingual courses.

“We’ll make these teachers think twice about subverting the education process,” Montero said.

She said test scores of children affected by California’s initiative rose substantially, though opponents will attribute that to smaller class sizes and the use of phonics.

“It’s time to set (bilingual education) aside and allow our kids to have the opportunity to get an equal education,” Montero said.

Immigrant concerns

Jenni Trujillo, a Fort Lewis College instructor of teacher education and linguistics, said the opposite would occur if Amendment 31 passes.

“It does not allow for equal access to education,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo, who moved to the United States from Venezuela when she was 11, said there is a distinction between conversational English and academic proficiency. She said that after the one year of immersion in English, the students may be fluent in conversation, but that three years or so down the road, when more complex concepts and words like photosynthesis are introduced, the students should have access to additional support.

Trujillo compared the proposed system to placing a deaf child in a language-immersion class for one year and then saying, “OK, no more sign language.”

“It’s exactly the same thing because they are not going to be able to learn new vocabulary without continued support,” Trujillo said. “One year is not going to cut it.”
Trujillo said some Hispanics may favor the amendment because they think it will help their children learn English as quickly as possible and because, in the past, Spanish-speaking students such as themselves were sometimes given detention, spat upon or it was dirty to speak Spanish.” As a result, there is a whole generation of native Spanish speakers that want to disassociate themselves with their language and “assimilate,” she said.

Victoria Romero Coe, a member of the Board of Directors of the Durango Latino Education Coalition, was one of about a dozen people at a “No on 31” organizational meeting at Companeros last week.

“I can’t speak for the whole board, but I’m against it,” Coe said after the meeting. “It’s anti-pedagogical and something that’s just going to worsen the drop-out rate for minority kids.”

Companeros Coordinator Olivia Lopez said that the group will raise awareness before the election with a number of events, including an educational forum at FLC and a dance benefit in October.

“I have to tell you that, as an immigrant, I am very, very concerned for my community, especially the children,” she said.




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